The Red Bulls make a statement, NYCFC's woes deepen and the playoff race tightens up. Liviu Bird breaks down MLS Week 26 in his latest Power Rankings.
With exactly two months remaining in the Major League Soccer season, every franchise still has a chance to be playing when the snow starts falling. Some will be more comfortable with their positioning than others, though, after several of the top teams lost this week and allowed those behind them to close the gap.
D.C. United lost big to the team directly on its tail, the New York Red Bulls, who have looked like one of the East's hottest teams of late (save for a midweek slip-up in Chicago). The LA Galaxy also lost, although only FC Dallas and the Seattle Sounders managed wins among the West's current top six.
The area around that sixth-place spot in each conference will be magnified in coming weeks, and the Montreal Impact fired coach Frank Klopas after a downturn in results made the club uncertain that he would lead them above that magical red line in the standings. Meanwhile, the San Jose Earthquakes have had the reverse, winning against anybody in their path to momentarily be in the top six before Seattle's win.
In a league where teams enjoy relatively low pressure for the majority of the season, the sudden change in atmosphere can be drastic as the postseason nears.
For the teams lower in each conference, the fact that the standings still shuffle within the last 10 games of the season offers a reminder that getting hot at the right time is just as valuable as, or even more valuable than, winning early.
Here are a few thoughts on where teams are headed after the past week of MLS play:
Uncertainty reigns as playoffs draw nearer
The Seattle Sounders briefly slipped outside the playoff places before defeating the Portland Timbers at home, and D.C. United’s lead atop the Eastern Conference shrunk to just two points. The New York Red Bulls only seem to get hotter, and the LA Galaxy’s charge to the top has been impressive.
All in all, there’s something to be said for LA’s style of peaking at the right time, even if it means enduring a run of just five wins in the first 17 games of the season.
Coach Bruce Arena comes out looking like a genius again in a league that emphasizes playoffs above all else if he can keep the team rising in form through the last eight weeks and into the postseason.
It helps that the Galaxy plays in a packed Western Conference, where all of the 10 teams have better records than the bottom five in the East. The disparity between the two means that teams in the West could also be better prepared for the playoffs, having taken on tougher opposition in more matches than their Eastern counterparts—after all, the last time somebody other than a current Western Conference team lifted MLS Cup was in 2008.
Klopas’s firing shows panic in Montreal
It’s a little surprising that it took until the end of August to see the first coach get fired in MLS this year, but it comes with the pressure-laden section of the calendar. It was a tough month in multiple competitions for the Montreal Impact, which led to Klopas getting axed after a 2-1 loss to Toronto FC on Saturday.
“In the last 11 games, we picked up 11 points, and that’s just not satisfactory,” Impact vice president Richard Legendre said on Sunday. “We only won once in seven games in the month of August, which we’d identified as crucial. Four were at home, and we didn’t win once.”
The Impact failed to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League next year, the competition in which Klopas led the team to the final in April with a pragmatic style that stifled all but the last competitor. His former assistant, Mauro Biello, now has the task of getting the team to the playoffs with plenty of matches remaining to make up a small difference in points.
NYCFC threatening to unravel
It’s been an interesting past few weeks in the soccer half of Yankee Stadium, where New York City FC still has a chance to make the playoffs. If you believe manager Jason Kreis, though, the players just might not be up to the task of making that happen.
“The players need to show if they want to be here and be a part of this because I know the coaching staff does,” he said after a 2-1 loss to the Columbus Crew. “I know the coaching staff cares an awful lot about this club and the job we’re attempting to do. I’m not so sure all the players do.”
This season has been a learning experience for Kreis, who is used to dealing with hardworking journeyman types from his success at Real Salt Lake rather than the higher-paid stars NYCFC has tried to integrate with more typical MLS players. It will be interesting to see how his latest attempt to light a fire under his team goes over, at a point when the whole season is at stake.
Do those stars—Frank Lampard, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo—respect him enough to get behind the message? As Kreis wonders, do those players actually care enough? NYCFC has a week off from league play to figure it out, but Lampard wouldn’t tip his hand one way or the other.
“I respect the manager for saying that,” he said. “You’ll have to ask every individual, but I don’t feel that. All I feel is, something’s off on the pitch. We’re not getting the results and the consistency, but for me, it’s not for [lack] of trying.”
Poor officiating doesn’t change Portland’s lack of finishing
Timbers coach Caleb Porter had some deservedly harsh words for referee Alan Kelly after his team’s loss in Seattle. The penalty Kelly called that led to Seattle’s second goal gave Porter plenty of ammo for a fascinating diatribe after the game.
“We’re coaches, and we’re all ambassadors for MLS and want the game to grow, and I thought the game was very poorly managed by the official,” he said. “He’s an experienced guy, but he seemed to be sleepwalking through the game. It wasn’t anything where he was biased toward one team or another—nothing unethical—I just thought he was very poor. Just like coaches have poor games and players have poor games, I thought he had a poor game. It seemed like he wasn’t ready for the intensity, wasn’t ready for the magnitude of the game.”
Of course, the words inside the Portland locker room were likely more internally directed. It’s hard to fault the referee too much when the Timbers converted just once on 20 shots and 15 goalscoring opportunities created throughout the game.
Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei should get some credit for his acrobatics, but Fanendo Adi didn’t put a shot on target. Lucas Melano, a constant threat in his short time with the Timbers so far, also couldn’t score 1-on-1 with Frei on the team’s best chance.
Week 26 Best XI
GOALKEEPER: Stefan Frei (Seattle Sounders)
DEFENDERS: David Horst (Houston Dynamo), Román Torres (Seattle Sounders), Andrew Farrell (New England Revolution)
MIDFIELDERS: Shea Salinas (San Jose Earthquakes), Federico Higuaín (Columbus Crew), Sacha Klještan (New York Red Bulls), Vicente Sánchez (Colorado Rapids), David Accam (Chicago Fire)
FORWARDS: Kennedy Igboananike (Chicago Fire), Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
A bizarre midweek loss in Chicago is the only such result in the last eight games for the Red Bulls, who have games in hand on every team ahead of them in the overall league table.
Columbus has also lost just once in its last eight, although the Crew did need a goal from Justin Meram off the bench to defeat NYCFC on Saturday.
The Galaxy saw their four-game winning streak end, but it didn’t cost them the league lead thanks to losses from teams directly behind them.
New England hasn’t lost since its midseason five-game losing streak ended, and much like the team’s reaction to a massive slump last year, the Revs look even stronger than they did at the start of the season.
Kendall Waston and Matías Laba were both sent off for two yellow cards against Houston, killing Vancouver’s chances of going to the top of the Supporters’ Shield standings.
Dom Kinnear’s team continued its late surge toward the playoffs, momentarily going into sixth place in the West with its fourth win in a row.
The Timbers picked apart Seattle’s defense and were unlucky not to get more out of the game, creating 20 shots and multiple scoring opportunities that should have been put away.
The Reds have never lost to Montreal at BMO Field and extended their unbeaten streak against the Impact to six games, but Sebastian Giovinco worryingly limped off with a groin injury just after halftime, missing out on a chance to join the Italian national team after an initial call-up.
Tesho Akindele repaid manager Óscar Pareja’s faith in him with a goal from the penalty spot in his first start since early June, leading Dallas to a home win over RSL.
In the midst of a three-game losing streak, the wide gap D.C. opened on the rest of the Eastern Conference has closed fast, as the Red Bulls are just two points back and Columbus is three behind.
After losing four of its first 19 games, Kansas City has lost three of the last six to slide just far enough down the table to remind the league—like D.C.—that fast starts guarantee nothing in MLS.
Houston is desperately trying to keep pace with San Jose and Seattle for the last playoff place, but a midweek loss to the Rapids took away what would have been three valuable points in that effort.
The Sounders’ defense owes goalkeeper Stefan Frei a huge thanks for multiple first-half saves to keep Seattle in the game against Portland, which his attacking teammates paid back by scoring twice.
It’s almost certainly too late in a competitive West, but two wins in a week did take the Rapids ahead of RSL at the bottom of the conference. Kevin Doyle is proving his DP worth after his latest game-winning heroics.
Games in hand don’t guarantee anything, but the Impact still have a little breathing room despite being just outside the playoff places with 11 matches remaining—two more than any other team in the league. They'll do so with another man at the helm after Frank Klopas's ouster.
It hasn’t been an easy second year in charge for Jeff Cassar, and a two-goal deficit against his former team from his playing days leaves RSL dead last in the West. Javier Morales's miss from the penalty spot was his first in seven years.
After a four-point week, the Fire climbed off the foot of the table on goal difference, providing a rare bright spot in a difficult season.
The Lions could regret not taking more than a point from Chicago, as they are just a point ahead of Montreal (which has four games in hand) and NYCFC for the final playoff spot in the East.
Jason Kreis had some strong words for his players after a loss to Columbus at home, specifically questioning whether they were putting in enough effort to get results in a tough inaugural season.
Philadelphia’s three-game unbeaten streak ended with a home loss to the Revs, not helped by Cristián Maidana’s bizarre red card in stoppage time for spitting on Lee Nguyen.